Plans for the US Air Force to develop a new bomber are set to emerge from behind the shadows of the Federal Government’s ‘black budget’ and be revealed to the public.
This month the US Government is expected to select either a Northrop Grumman or a Lockheed Martin/Boeing team to lead the next B-2 Long-Range Strike Bomber program.
The bomber is part of the government’s ‘black budget’ projects – which are used to protect classified and secret government programs such as advanced weapons systems and intelligence operations from public disclosure.
Details including weapons systems, stealth technology and other specifications could be included in the contract award.
Exactly what details of the bomber will be revealed hasn’t yet been decided, as Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James is weighing up how much to reveal about the classified aircraft.
Ms James has reportedly suggested that funding and acquisition details will be discussed, rather than “the crown jewels – the technical capabilities.”
The fleet of 100 planned bombers will come at a cost of $55bn ($550m per jet), an immense cost which has seen the Pentagon come under intense scrutiny.
The US Air Force is promoting the jet as a replacement for its aging bomber fleet, and has committed $15.1bn of its spending through 2020 on the new fleet.
The new bomber will have improved sensors and navigation equipment that will be harder for adversaries to disrupt, and more advanced stealth technology to counter advances in ultra-low-frequency radar and other detection gear and to enable the plane to withstand adverse weather better than the older B-2 bombers, which were first rolled out to the public in 1988.
Contract considerations for the 100 jet fleet came after the current fleet of B-2 stealth bombers were deployed to the Asia-Pacific region and to Britain to conduct war games over Europe.
The government’s estimated cost of $55bn for the new bomber fleet could end up being even higher due to each bombers cost rising with the inevitable reduction in the number of US buys, a scenario outlined by former White House budget official Gordon Adams.
“The Air Force is saying the plane will cost $550m in 2010 dollars, but we are in 2015,” he said.
“If the law of averages holds true, it’s going to cost us two times as much because we aren’t going to buy as many planes.”
This concern for the rising cost of the fleet stems from what occurred with the original B-2, whose per-copy tag blew out to $2.2bn when that fleet was capped at 20 aircraft.
Senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Todd Harrison, said he expected the Long-Range Strike Bomber program to be a point of conjecture in Congress.
“The budget environment could make this a unique debate in Congress because the overall budget looks very uncertain,” he said.
“There will be a lot of questions about funding and how the priority of the LRS-B program is placed above others.”
Harrison said the government’s promise to disclose the schedule and funding for the new jet didn’t go far enough.
“My opinion is that it is incumbent on the Air Force to be transparent about funding for the LRS-B program,” he said.